They were born eighteen days apart. They attended West Point Military Academy together. Both served in the Mexican-American War in the 1840’s. Both sided with the Confederacy in 1861. With their military backgrounds, both quickly advanced to the rank of brigadier general. On June 21, 1861, at the Battle of First Manassas, both helped create a legend.
That legend began one of them on a path to great fame. The other is remembered primarily for his words which are part of the legend. The two men were General Thomas Jonathan Jackson and General Bernard Bee. It was General Bee who shouted out to his beleaguered command, “There stands Jackson like a stone wall.”
That phrase gave Jackson a legacy and the nickname “Stonewall.” This was the first major battle of the Civil War, and like so many disputes related to that war, it is called the First Bull Run by Northern accounts and First Manassas by Southern accounts. It was an unexpected Southern victory. That Sunday began with people from Washington gathering on the hills to watch what was thought to be both the beginning and ending of the Southern rebellion. That day ended with the Union Army making a chaotic and hasty retreat back to Washington, running over the civilian observers in the process.
“Stonewall” Jackson would, in time, be known for his audacious battlefield maneuvers. In the upcoming Valley Campaign, Jackson raced his army up and down the Shenandoah Valley, using unexpected attacks, withdrawals, and hasty troop movements. Four Union armies were repeatedly attacked, confused, dazed, and occasionally routed by Jackson’s army.
While aggressive on the attack, Jackson was actually quite adept at defensive warfare. He had a great eye for battlefield topography, for that particular piece of ground that would afford his men maximum protection while exposing the enemy to intense gunfire.
That is exactly what happened at that June day at Manassas Junction. The battle was a classic case of battlefield confusion, garbled commands, panic among inexperienced soldiers, and textbook lessons on tactics confronting the reality of hot lead and smoke. Bernard Bee’s brigade, in the forefront of the battle, was threatened with being overrun by Union troops.
Jackson, meanwhile, coolly and calmly, positioned his men and artillery on the slope of a hill in a defensive line that would prove unmovable, just like a stone wall. It was in the midst of this part of the battle when General Bee rode up to Jackson and said, “Sir, they are beating us back.” To which Jackson replied, “Sir, we’ll give them the bayonet.”
Riding hastily back to his brigade, Bee shouted out, “There stands Jackson like a stone wall. Let us determine to die here and we will conquer. Follow me.” Unknowingly, Bee had bestowed upon Jackson his defining nickname. Unknowingly, he had spoken his last recorded words. Shortly after that, General Bee was wounded, and the next morning, he died.
Up until his death in May of 1863, Jackson’s fame and legendary battlefield prowess increased. But there are questions about what General Bee really meant. The main view is that Bee was calling on his men to take heart, be steadfast, and move to a position alongside Jackson’s troops where they could stop the enemy. Bee’ statement was a turning point for his brigade, which had been battered and was falling apart. They too were being called on to stand like a stone wall.
Some historians, however, have suggested a totally different interpretation. June 21 had not been a good day for General Bee. Shifting his brigade from one vital point to the other had only resulted in greater losses and the unraveling of his command. Seeing Jackson’s force nestled in the more secure area on the hill’s slope prompted Bee to request assistance. Jackson’s reply about giving the enemy the bayonet was unsatisfactory.
“There stands Jackson like a stone wall.” Could it have possibly meant, “There stands Jackson and his brigade doing nothing while we are carrying the brunt of the battle”?
General Bee’s death the next morning leaves that riddle unsolved. Who knows how history might have been different had Jackson died in that battle and had Bee lived? Such are the fortunes of war. Such are the ways that legends are born.